Your next BMW might only have heated seats for 3 months

As services-based economies sweep every industry, it's time for the automotive realm to carry on.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
3 min read
2021 BMW 5 Series

Things are about to get weird in here.


German luxury cars are renowned for the breadth of their options sheets. On one hand, this means you can get your next BMW 5 Series configured exactly how you want it. On the other hand, it means you'll often wind up paying for extra for seemingly basic things like, say, a spare tire. Now, BMW is raising the ante by making many car options into software services enabled whenever you want them. The disconcerting part? They can be disabled, too.

In a VR presentation streamed from Germany today, BMW ran through a series of digital updates to its cars, including more details on the new BMW digital key service announced with Apple at last week's WWDC and confirming that current model cars will be fully software upgradeable over the air, a la Tesla. The first such update will hit BMW Operating System 7 cars in July. Packages are said to be approximately 1GB in size and will take roughly 20 minutes to install.

But, the most notable part of the day's presentation was the new plan to turn many options into software services. BMW mentioned everything from advanced safety systems like adaptive cruise and automatic high-beams to other, more discrete options like heated seats.

2021 BMW 5 Series: Now with more hybrid

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These options will be enabled via the car or the new My BMW app. While some will be permanent and assigned to the car, others will be temporary, with mentioned periods ranging from three months to three years. Some, presumably, will be permanent, but during the stream's Q&A portion BMW representatives demurred on the details. 

So, yes, you could theoretically only pay for heated seats in the colder months if you like, or perhaps save a few bucks by only enabling automatic high-beams on those seasons when the days are shortest. 

You may recall, BMW already demoed a program like this in 2018 by charging for limited-time access to Apple CarPlay. At the time I called this "next-level gouging" and I wasn't in the minority, the reaction being so negative that BMW eventually scrapped the program.

Yet this new move basically takes that approach and brings it to another level. Imagine pressing the seat heater button only to be prompted to renew your subscription, or having to pay extra to get an engine note on your new M4 that suits your sensibilities. All this is possible -- and likely. And, frankly, ugly.

This "vehicle as a platform" approach may indeed save some consumers money, particularly in the lease-heavy luxury sedan space where average ownership intervals are measured in months, not years. Also, this approach could open the door even further into letting consumers get exactly the specification they want, instead of bundling discrete options into packages in the name of streamlining manufacturing processes.

However, the potential downsides are troubling, particularly when it comes to used car sales. BMW representatives indicated that upgraded features will apply to the car, not the user, but indicated that all the details on used car sales are still being worked out. Again, there are some positives here, like being able to have a better-equipped second-hand car than the original owner, but it's hard to not see this as simply another shot of revenue for BMW in a transaction that might otherwise not involve the company at all.

Tesla recently found itself in hot water for disabling Autopilot on a used car. This is just the beginning, and how consumers react will be key, though at the end of the day this sort of thing feels inevitable. Service-based pricing is taking over everything from what we're watching tonight to what we're having for dinner. Why not what's sitting in our driveway, too?